Analysis: Texas remap feud may harm state

By Phil Magers
Published September 5th 2003 in United Press International
Polls indicate the players in the bitter Texas battle over congressional redistricting may pay a heavy price in the next election, but the biggest loser may be the state itself.

When he was governor, George W. Bush used to brag about his accomplishments in Austin working side by side with Democratic legislative leaders in an era of bipartisanship. Following months of stalemate, bitterness has developed among legislators that may take years to heal.

"It is my very real fear that the Senate will not have the same collegial atmosphere that it has over my career and I don't know how long it will be before it is restored, if ever," said Sen. Bill Ratliff, a veteran Republican lawmaker from East Texas.

Ratliff, a former lieutenant governor, has been an outspoken critic of some of his own party's redistricting plans and tactics. Although he has three years to serve in the Senate he says his future is a "month-to-month" decision right now.

Ratliff's counterpart on the Democratic side is Sen. John Whitmire, the most senior member of the Senate, who broke with his colleagues in Albuquerque this week and returned home to Houston, giving Republicans the vote they need to pass redistricting.

Whitmire and 10 other Democratic senators fled to New Mexico on July 28 after Republican Gov. Rick Perry called a second special session to enact new district lines. Their absence prevented passage of a GOP plan during that 30-day session, but Perry has vowed to call a third "in the not to distant future."

Whitmire quietly flew home during the Labor Day weekend and found his constituents opposed to redistricting but against a continued holdout. He returned to the Senate floor Friday for a news conference to declare that he would be there if a third session is called.

"I intend to fight redistricting on the Senate floor," he said. "I will be present."

If Perry calls a third session and Whitmire shows up that doesn't solve all the problems. There is still disagreement among Republicans over how to draw new congressional lines in West Texas and holdout Democrats face fines they say they will not pay.

Public opinion is also negative for Perry and the Legislature after months of wrangling that some residents view as embarrassing for Texas.

For the first time since Perry became governor in 2000, more people disapprove of his job performance than approve. Some 44 percent of respondents give him high marks and 48 percent rate his performance as fair or poor in The Texas Poll conducted by the Scripps Data Center.

About 68 percent of the 1,000 Texans surveyed Aug. 7-21 also said they disapproved of the job the Legislature has done this year, according to the poll. The respondents were not asked to rate the legislators by party but the public's displeasure seems apparent.

"There is enough tar there to cover everybody," said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Perry may also be facing opposition from within his own party. Republican Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn is reportedly considering a gubernatorial bid in 2006 when Perry's term ends. There is also speculation that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, might consider a run for governor.

Although tactically the Texas 11 may have lost the legislative fight when Whitmire defected, they are not giving up and dutifully marching back to Austin to make their last stand on the floor of the Senate. They joined a national campaign Thursday.

Three of the Texas 11 traveled to Washington to launch a national tour aimed at linking Bush political adviser Karl Rove and U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to the Texas fight for more Republican congressional seats.

"This power grab, pure and simple, is about trying to stack the deck, trying to get another bite at the apple so that Republicans can get an additional five, nine, maybe 10 seats in the U.S. Congress and they are willing to trample on the Voting Rights Act to do it," state Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston said in Washington.

Republicans currently have a 229-205 advantage in the U.S. House with one independent. Democrats currently have a 17-15 advantage in the Texas delegation and the GOP says that fails to represent their new strength in the Lone Star State.

The Democrats contend the GOP plan would dilute minority-voting strength in some districts. They also charge Republicans violated minority voting rights law when they suspended a rule requiring a two-thirds vote to consider legislation in the Senate. A three-judge federal panel will hear their lawsuit on that issue next week.

Although Democrats have tried to draw Bush into the fight, asking him to call off Rove, the White House has refused to get involved. Spokesman Scott McClellan has said repeatedly that redistricting is a state issue and they will not get involved.

David Beckwith, a spokesman for Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, said Thursday after the Democrat's news conference: "I think Karl Rove's got plenty of other things to worry about than this situation."

Beckwith said the Texas 11 have blocked democracy by holding out in New Mexico and denying a quorum in the Senate. "It's a scandal that Texas supports President Bush by 65 percent or more and our congressional delegation does not," he said.

At least one member of the Texas 11 is expected at each stop on the tour sponsored by, an online advocacy group for Democratic causes that has raised $1 million for the Texas 11. The "Defending Democracy Tour" will visit Philadelphia, Miami, New York City, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The remaining members of the Texas 11 received more national exposure Thursday when three of the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination visited during a stop in Albuquerque for a national televised debate. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri paid their respects.

Although the Democrats have lost a tactical advantage with the defection of Whitmire, they are not pulling out the white flag because their theme of "Defending Democracy" will be carried on into next year's election, says Buchanan.

"It makes Texas and its squabble kind of symbolic of the larger effort, and it's a bitter struggle, to capture the hearts and minds of the American people, which is what the presidential election will be about," he said.

Even if the Republican-controlled Legislature does pass a redistricting plan, it must be cleared by the Justice Department because of possible minority voting rights questions. Then there are the inevitable lawsuits by Democrats.

"The mere fact that the battle might be over doesn't mean that they want to withdraw from the war," said Buchanan.